New World

I read a piece in Strong Towns recently where a developer tasked with designing a disposable commercial development asked for advice on how to make it into something worthwhile. The response was essentially: "This will never be good as it is bad in its fundamentals and aims, but you can make it convenient. And don't worry about it even if you fail, because it will be gone in 100 years anyways." I've been thinking about the latter part of the response for over a week now. I drive around town thinking: how much of this is designed to be obsolete in a century? What will actually be left? And my mind fills up with apocalyptic images of the shells of Costcos and Best Buys covered with weeds.

Realistically, nothing outside of the original core of my city will last. Like most American cities it's an onion whose center is a 19th century settlement, with each successive layer newer than the last, ending with strip malls, condo developments, and big box stores in the outermost layers. None of those buildings are designed to last 100 years. New buildings will be built to replace them, probably, but they won't last themselves. I can't project the future of the city, because it's not built in continuity with its past. It's just ... buildings. Not a community or a town.

But now I'm also wondering: what forces would actually empty out the city? What's the worst case scenario? If the covid pandemic was much worse, like originally feared, what would happen to those condo blocks and big box stores? Or what happens if gas prices suddenly spike due to global unrest or natural disaster and nobody can get to the stores on the perimeter? The outer layers of the municipal onion are delicate and are most prone to collapse. (Covid has already begun emptying them out here. Can a strip mall survive when it's only at 2/3rds capacity? What about 50%? Would it really matter either way?) And the more I think about it, the more I realize America is still on its first iteration. We've had a Revolution, a Civil War, and multiple pandemics, but fundamentally we're still on a straight line. Our difficulties have been mere speed bumps as we continue to grow and expand and consume. What does America look like once it's actually operating under constraint?

So now as I drive around I realize - for literally the first time in my life - that I'm living on the remote frontier. The oldest buildings here are 175 years old. Most of what I see was built not only within my lifetime, but since I graduated high school. (This isn't unique to my town: it's happening everywhere. I visited an old home of mine and was shocked to discover it had been so overbuilt in the past decade that I literally didn't recognize where I was for most of the trip. Thankfully a friend who lives there was present to navigate for me.) It feels like I'm surrounded by trash: cheap, disposable everything from top to bottom. America is still The New World, 250 years later, empty and rebellious. It's my home, and I love it, but it no longer calls to me. I've been feeling the pull of Europe for the past few years, which began when, after having lost a job after the company collapsed, I began looking for neighborhoods in town that I'd enjoy living in, only to discover there were none. There were none nearby, nor within commuting distance, and - affordably, at least - not within my state. What I wanted: a walkable, safe, and clean town where I could walk or bike to work and the store without taking out a half million dollar mortgage. It literally doesn't exist in America.

After realizing every single city and town in America was dysfunctional (and Americans liked it that way, I guess - honestly I still don't get it) I started to consider work in Asia or Europe. That urge to move - at least for a while: America is still my home - has only grown since, and nothing here in town satisfies anymore. The walkable downtown was destroyed by BLM riots and Covid shutdown orders, which only exacerbated the loneliness. I don't live in a town, I live in an overpriced box on the frontier.

If I don't move - I'm satisfied at my job and making a relatively large salary, happy to say, so moving isn't something I want to do prematurely - I'm going to start a charity for my town. I keep turning it over in my mind during my daily walk: the charity would fight for expanded housing options in town, greater walkability, public art installations, and coordinate getting state and federal funds into the hands of homeowners. Maybe we could fight for civic development projects, too: there's a canal nearby that's heavily-trafficked but almost completely undeveloped: it's just some large stones piled up on one side and a greenspace on the other. Why not turn it into a European-style canal with a small walkway on either side? Be the change you want to see in the world, right?